By Preston Wilder
John Rambo has some anger issues, for an older man. “I want revenge,” he snarls. “I want them to know that death is coming, and there’s nothing they can do to stop it!” I admit I went back and forth on the rating for this fifth – and, surely, last – Rambo movie; it may perhaps merit two stars, just for being so unabashedly Neanderthal (unlike, say, Angel Has Fallen, it’s never boring) – but this is a film at the cinema, and most viewers won’t be pleased to fork over €9 for something so obviously cruddy. If you happen to catch it on TV, on the other hand, you may well find yourself watching to the end – and you should, because the end is… quite something.
Rambo (Sylvester Stallone, natch) is almost at peace with himself as the film begins, living on a ranch where he trains (non-Italian) stallions – but of course we say ‘almost’ because John is haunted, haunted by the friends he couldn’t save and haunted by stock footage of Vietnam (even the local sheriff, who thinks the world of him, describes him as “a ’Nam burnout”). His joy is the daughter he helped raise, the family he thought he’d never have – not his own daughter but a fatherless girl named Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), now a beautiful teenager. Rambo’s also spent some time digging a complicated network of tunnels under the ranch, though it’s unclear how, when and – most importantly – why he did this. Did he suspect he might someday be in a showdown with a Mexican drug cartel, and the tunnels would be an excellent place to set lots of booby traps? Something like that.
The drug cartel enters the picture when Gaby sneaks off to Mexico, looking for her no-good dad – who, once found, brushes her off with perhaps the coldest speech delivered by a long-lost parent in movie history. Shaken and upset, the teen goes to a club – and it only takes one quick shot of something being slipped in her drink before she finds herself in a dingy basement alongside lots of other kidnapped girls, with one girl tied up like a dog and a woman berating them to be good little sex slaves: “Even if it’s 40 or 50 men… too bad!”. That’s how fast things happen in this movie.
The skeletal plotting is almost impressive, as if to say Rambo’s too iconic to be tied down by anything so puny as film structure. Our hero crosses the border, looking for his ward – but seems to have no plan at all, and soon finds himself surrounded by cartel thugs who beat him to a pulp (the camera dwells on his bruised, puffy face; Stallone, who co-wrote the script, has always had a bit of a martyr complex). He then regroups and has no trouble rescuing the girl, incidentally taking a hammer to some sleazy clients, but of course that’s not the end of it. The end comes in the aforementioned tunnels, cathartic carnage taking the film’s ultra-violence to a new high – though what’s bothersome isn’t actually the violence but the cynicism behind it, the idea that Rambo’s just ‘doing a Rambo’. First Blood, back in 1982, was a glimpse of the killing machine implanted (by society) in every returning soldier; once you turn that into a character trait – when the whole point is waiting for Rambo to turn into Rambo – the cautionary tale is lost.
Stallone is 73 now, still an imposing presence with his fleshy lips and noble profile – but there’s a melancholy in an old man still compulsively making action pictures, and that sense of a lost soul extends to Rambo as well. “Where will you go?” asks his housekeeper, when he talks about leaving the ranch. “I’ll move around,” he replies, then adds: “Like always”. Rambo: Last Blood is a film that didn’t need to be made – you can see it in how strenuously it struggles to say anything at all, let alone something new – by a star who nonetheless had to make it, for his own reasons.
In a way it’s intriguing to see Stallone so unfettered, indulging Rambo’s darkness and not even bothering to build a film around him – yet it’s also a drag to spend 90 minutes with a movie where the acting is flat, the dialogue functional, the action repetitive, the violence pointlessly graphic, the visuals memorable only for the sickly-yellow filter director Adrian Grunberg plasters over most of the night scenes. I survived, declares John Rambo near the end of this oddball monstrosity, but “a part of my mind and soul got lost along the way”. That’s putting it mildly.
DIRECTED BY Adrian Grunberg
STARRING Sylvester Stallone, Paz Vega, Yvette Monreal
Includes dialogue in Spanish, with Greek subtitles.
US 2019 87 mins